Thomas Kinkade, the creator of thousands of widely reproduced illustrations of cute cottages and pastel flower gardens – you would recognize his style instantly even if you didn't know his name – died last week at age 54. He claimed to be the most collected American artist. His passing can't go by without some reflections on the idea of kitsch.
In 1988, the U.S. artist Jeff Koons exhibited a series of large, gaudily painted porcelain sculptures of cartoon characters and celebrities. The most famous of them were three identical life-sized statues of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. The series, called Banality, was inspired by Hummel figurines – small, cheap, German porcelain "collectibles" from the 1930s. The aesthetic is that of the chocolate-box cover and the theme park – what used to be called kitsch. Except that Koons's sculptures were weirder than kitsch: They were out of scale and contained creepy sexual overtones. And they were taken very seriously as conceptual art: one Michael Jackson and Bubbles statue alone eventually sold at auction for $5.6-million (U.S.).
From about that moment on – and there are many other artists one could mention who contributed to that shift, including Andy Warhol 20 years earlier – the word kitsch has not often been used as a pejorative in art criticism. Indeed, it is only used at all if enveloped in multiple layers of quotation marks. The word itself probably comes from the German dialect verb kitschen, to smear – in the 19th century, Germans called illustrated postcards susses Kitsch, sweet smearings. Clement Greenberg expanded its meaning in a 1939 essay to include anything conventional, such as the art of the great painting academies, as opposed to "avant-garde" art. But since postmodern artists have so enjoyed exploring the rich terrain of pop culture, mass production, nostalgia and irony, these distinctions have melted into a colourful mud.
Consider the Russian-American intellectual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. Their famous "people's choice" paintings from the 1990s are mostly bucolic landscapes filled with cute animals and historical figures, themes they chose after polling large numbers of people in various countries about their favourite images in paintings. Is this simple kitsch or a groundbreaking avant-gardist artistic method?
Kinkade's intentions, on the other hand, were never ironic or critical: He found that people really loved chocolate boxes, and chocolate boxes he painted. His success was baffling to even the most broad-minded of art lovers. Even as an illustrator, he wasn't really very good: I have seen more real-looking hobbit cottages in many a children's book. His light pastel palette, really heavy on the pink, is truly weird: Everything he painted ended up tinged with pink, even the Indy 500 racetrack. The colours are so sweet, most of what he paints looks not like candy boxes but like actual candy, as if every tree and steeple is made of sugar.
There is also a strange fixation on property in Kinkade's work: He made thousands of images of houses, castles and mansions, their windows all glowing a radioactive orange, and there are no people visible in or near them. This absence of inhabitants makes them look like a real-estate catalogue. They are sales images, nice places one can imagine oneself owning.
Generally, Kinkade's work is not nearly as interesting formally or thematically as anything done by his idol, Norman Rockwell. And yet Kinkade's corporate empire made him one of the most profitable living artists in a unique way: He did not make his millions by selling paintings, but by selling relatively inexpensive mass-produced reproductions. He had teams of assistants touch up the prints – it was often the assistants who added the yellow highlights that he was so well-known for. He also made money on hundreds of other products – any kind of merchandise, including real estate, that could be branded with a Kinkade image.
I'm surprised no one is comparing him to Damien Hirst, the most profitable British "high" artist. They have been reviled for almost identical reasons by the press. Hirst, whose current retrospective at London's Tate Modern has garnered largely scornful reviews from the art intelligentsia, has been criticized for his determined profit-seeking, for inflated prices, for using assistants to produce his work, even for a general lack of originality (many artists and illustrators have accused him of copying their work). But Hirst is seen as a conceptualist – his art is these brilliant money-making ideas themselves.
Why don't we see Kinkade in a similar light? What Kinkade was selling was also ideas: a mythical America, a pink-dawned, Christian cartoonscape of flowers, waterfalls and Disneyland. The dreamscape is a concept. Kinkade's hand didn't touch the prints that fans collected. Kinkade himself declared in one interview, "I am really the most controversial artist in the world." No wonder he made almost as much as the star of the Saatchi collection and the Tate Modern – Kinkade was a conceptual artist.